Feds Check on WRJ Art Project

Saturday, November 23, 2013
Monday is Ben Peberdy’s day off. One spring Monday, Peberdy was alone at his White River Junction apartment. His roommates had left for the gym. Peberdy’s mother stopped by unexpectedly with some alarming news: The FBI was coming to see him.

An agent and two State Police troopers had stopped by the family’s home in Corinth to talk to him, and the agent was on his way to White River Junction.

“She got there probably seven minutes before they did,” Peberdy said.

A visit from the FBI isn’t high on the average person’s list of good times, but Peberdy hadn’t committed a crime. The FBI came to his door for art’s sake.

An art project Peberdy started last summer to get his work out to the wider world had struck a nerve halfway across the country.

Every day for a year, the 26-year-old White River Junction resident is mailing a postcard-sized collage to a random recipient, usually a business, found through Google Maps. The project is set up on the John Cage principle: chance makes the music.

A brush with the law is out of character for Peberdy. He grew up in Corinth, where his father has a woodworking shop and his mother is operations manager at Northern Woodlands magazine. He graduated from Thetford Academy and spent a year studying literature at the University of Vermont, but grew frustrated with his experience there and dropped out. He has worked as a bartender at Middle Earth Music Hall in Bradford, at a sawmill and on a farm.

Peberdy started making art in 2009. His small, colorful, barbed collages draw on the imagery of 1950s and ’60s advertising, comics, horror movies and scientific manuals.

“I had started collecting all these images without really using them for anything,” Peberdy said. In the winter of 2009, he started cutting them apart and assembling them into diminutive fever dreams that take aim at American hunger and fear. He has exhibited his work at the Main Street Museum and Scavenger Gallery in White River Junction and at galleries in Burlington. He also was selected for a residency at the Vermont Studio Center in Johnson, Vt., in 2011.

He started putting his work in the mail in August, after a planned exhibition fell through. “This allowed me to get this artwork out to people who would never go to a gallery,” Peberdy said.

Mailing the collages is an intuitive process. He made them quickly, and used a digital version of the world traveler’s finger-on-the-globe method of picking a destination. He picks a spot at random on Google Maps, then zooms in until he finds an address. Postcards have gone out to lawyers, surgeons, an International House of Pancakes, the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C., a few residents and a host of other businesses.

While Peberdy is sending cards, they aren’t for greeting. He doesn’t include his name or email address, only his return mailing address and the name of his ongoing art project, Deluxe Unlimited.

“I leave my name off because I want the recipient to see it only as a small piece of artwork,” Peberdy said. That hasn’t stopped people from finding him via the Internet, where a Google search for “deluxe unlimited” brings up the Facebook page and website Peberdy has set up for his project.

In mid-September, Peberdy mailed a collage to the address of an establishment called SDSM&T Tech Development Laboratory in Rapid City, S.D. The card featured a smiling cartoon cowboy, a diagram of a BB gun and the legend “Another Disaster.”

The cowboy collage “seemed sort of like a broad warning about walking into trouble,” Peberdy said.

Trouble, indeed. The laboratory that received the collage belonged to the South Dakota School of Mines. The school perceived the collage as a threat and contacted law enforcement, Peberdy said. That started a chain of events that ended with FBI Special Agent Jeffrey Alford, from the bureau’s Rutland office, on Peberdy’s doorstep.

A phone message left for Alford was returned by the FBI’s Albany, N.Y., division. “Our general policy is that we don’t comment on the existence or non-existence of investigations or the investigation techniques that we use,” said Paul Holstein, the bureau’s media representive in Albany.

“For me it was a little surreal,” said Amy Peberdy, Ben’s mom. Her husband, Bill, told her that the State Troopers and FBI agent had been there looking for Ben. “I thought it best to go down to White River,” she said.

Her son’s reaction was a little different from hers, she said. “He said, ‘Good, well great, let’s go outside and wait.’ ”

Ben Peberdy said he talked to Alford for about an hour and a half. “As you can imagine, I was very nervous about this,” he said. It didn’t help that in addition to a printout of the collage, the FBI had tracked down Peberdy’s driver’s license photo, in which the bushy-bearded college freshman looks like a budding Unabomber.

Peberdy explained his project, including the intent of the collage he’d sent to Rapid City. “I had to explain that it absolutely wasn’t a threat,” he said. The conversation was cordial.

Still, Peberdy was warned against continuing his project. “The implication was that things are so hypervigilant that I can’t risk doing anything,” he said. And his first thought was to comply, to just drop it. He could understand the South Dakota school’s wish to err on the side of caution.

But he had also put a finger on the nation’s pulse. Schools are so frightened at the prospect of a shooting that the first response to an unlooked-for artwork is to alert the authorities. The tiny card, Another Disaster, is a portrait of a peculiarly American terror.

“Culturally, this climate of fear has been percolating since the 1950s,” said Amy Peberdy, who sat in on her son’s conversation with the FBI agent, just to listen.

The day after his brush with the law, Ben Peberdy spent several hours going back and forth before deciding to keep going with his project.

“Immediately afterward, unfortunately, I felt a little bit paranoid,” Peberdy said. He didn’t know whether the FBI would still monitor him. So he’s been open about what he’s doing, continuing to post scans of the collages he mails, with the addresses, to his Facebook page.

So far, a handful of recipients have sent Peberdy’s cards back to him, but others have been more curious. He received an inquisitive response from a law firm in Casper, Wyo. He had thought that people would write letters back. In recent weeks, the response has grown sparser still.

If anything, Peberdy emerged from his encounter with the law even more committed to his project. He has resisted suggestions to identify himself more fully on the collages he sends and is still sending one out every day. His mother summed up her son’s persistence.

“I don’t think anyone should dictate to another person how they express their art.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3219.